Franzen and the Future, Redux


by Lorin Stein

First, thank you for all the comments on my first post. They have been very much on my mind. As I think any editor will agree, you've named problems that we in the business think about every day—then go home and lie awake thinking about at night. For example:

VrDrew points out how rare it is now for a novel (or any other work of fiction) to gain widespread recognition: "In our attention-deficit stricken world, a single novel that manages to capture the attention of America's upper-middlebrow ... is indeed a throwback to an earlier age."

Lena McFarland complains that this recognition is all-or-nothing (and tends to be Great Man-ish): "How does one guy ... get to be more important [than] or as big as all of literature and the entire form of the novel?"

Kurosakih sees the problem as systemic: "The media that support the making of literary reputations are ... in trouble ... It's easier to publish a big piece talking about the greatness of Franzen and his work than it would be to do something similar about a writer no one else had ever heard of."

Citizen E believes that great new work is in short supply and that hype has supplanted honest dealing: "It has been my experience that new great literary works are rare ... For my money, 2666 by Bolano was the last truly great novel by a recent novelist that I have read."

Brothers and sisters, amen.

It has become immensely hard to get a "literary" writer the attention he or she deserves. (Here I use the word in its trade sense, the way Amazon does.) The proximate cause is the collapse of book reviewing. Ten years ago, reviews were the publishing strategy at a house like FSG. They maintained a stable market for literary books. We simply filled an existing need. People like my grandmother would read the Sunday reviews, note the titles that intrigued them, and head off to the bookstore (or, in my grandmother's case, the library). Every big city in America had its own supplement. Now that's gone, and so is the market. Now, with every new author, a publisher starts from scratch.

Of course, the death of the reviews is part of a much larger story, one we all know. There is the Web. There is cable TV. There was, to an unexamined degree, September 11th. For six months, the media more or less stopped covering literature. The sky didn't fall. Most newspapers realized they could do without it, forever.

The amazing thing, to me, is how book-lovers banded together to fill the gap. First you had sites like Salon, Slate, and Feed. Their idea was to create an alternate world of book reviews online. (Full disclosure: I've occasionally written for Salon and Feed.) The trouble, as we all learned, is that even the smartest book reviews tend to vanish on the Web. You don't go searching for coverage of a book you haven't read. A book review, to be effective, has to stand there like a billboard (or a Kindle ad) and call out for your attention.

Then came the book blogs. These began as fan sites, with everything good and bad that that implies. Some are brilliant. Some not. They work best (they sell the most books, they generate the best discussions) when they address a tight-knit reading community. Readers of sf and fantasy, it should be said, are the envy of the business. They are engaged, informed, loyal, and impossible to dupe. They read a ton. They hold their writers to the highest standards of the genre.

What's called "literary" fiction has no special interest group. It simply includes too many things. Elizabeth Gilbert, Ben Marcus, and Jonathan Franzen are all literary writers. For a literary novel to succeed, it has to create its own market—one that never existed before it hit the shelves. (Failure, nowadays, can mean sales in the triple or double digits. Yes, I've seen excellent books, books I loved, from reputable publishers, sell fewer than a hundred copies.)

That is why literary publishers—to say nothing of writers—still need the old generalist media. Lucky for us all, the magazines are strewn with passionate readers who glory in saving books that might otherwise languish off the beaten path.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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